In his observations on life – a talk entitled Seeking to walk beautifully on the Earth – Irish author and philosopher John Moriarty observes the need for more air-holes in our lives, in the modern world.
Having spent years in Canada and the deep winter that visits that part of the world, he observed how the walrus would puncture and keep open breathing holes in the ice so that seals could come up for air. For the walrus this was a selfish act, for their motivation was to keep the seals alive and ultimately available to them for food.
But the metaphor resonated with him as he bore witness to the human race – for which he cared so deeply – gasping for the sort of air that allows us to breathe transcendentally.
Over the Christmas break, I rediscovered that Leitrim is one of my essential breathing holes. My life and work in Dublin is privileged and stimulating but like all things that demands much of our time it has the potential to become all consuming, to leave me out of balance, should I allow it. In the months leading up to Christmas I made it home to Derryloughan only once and I missed it.
A tiredness had descended upon me that I knew deep down went beyond the long hours I was giving to work and some other elements of my life that required intense attention. I was still training quite regularly, and the occasions under the stars in Ringsend Park energised me momentarily, but I wasn’t breathing deeply enough for it to transcend beyond the night’s session because the weight of my world was sitting on my chest.
When the time arrived to head home and to leave Dublin in my rear-view mirror I had developed tendonitis in my right knee – astroturf is an unforgiving surface for legs with as many miles as mine have clocked up. I was feeling sorry for myself as I couldn’t run and I would miss that release: a run with our dogs on Tullan Strand on Christmas Day is one of my favourite Yule time traditions. Walking is something that other people do, in my mind.
On the drive on a stunning Thursday afternoon I searched out a Moriarty podcast and invited him to be my passenger. As it turned out I would become his passenger on a journey of enlightenment as he helped turn what could have been a four-and-a-half-hour slog in traffic into a pilgrimage home.
Happiness is, they say, being able to enjoy the scenery on a detour. Had I been detoured off the N4 via Ballyhaunis I wouldn’t have minded. Moriarty’s lilting voice wove into the tapestry of my busy mind and his soothing sentiments began untangling some of my manifold thoughts. With his musings swirling around in my head I made a promise to myself. Instead of being frustrated by my inability to run I would take the hint to slow down and try to walk beautifully in the world of north Leitrim.
Each day I took to either Tullan Strand or Mullachmore Beach with Twister (one of our dogs) and Moriarty as my trusty companions. Walking mindfully on sand is, I find, easier than on any other surface for you can feel the earth give way beneath your feet as if it were personally granting you the grace of space on this world for each and every step you take. The opening stanza of John O’Donaghue’s ‘Beannacht’ poem came to mind as I reconnected with nature:
‘On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.’
On the way out to the estuaries that frames both Tullan and Mullachmore beaches I tend to seek out new sand. I think because it gives me the sensation that I am the first person to have walked that path. On the way back I tend to take greater notice of any other footprints that may have passed that way too, imagining each individual and occasionally seeking to walk in their steps, to connect with them.
The energy on the far side of Tullan strand is like nowhere else I have found on this world. I think it has to do with the coming together of so many elements as you reach the mouth of the River Erne – earth, wind, water (both salt and fresh water coming together), all framed by the sandbanks and patchwork meadows, all brimming with sea-life and land-life and air-life, while the carcases of each decay amongst the marine debris of mankind.
The wind comes in from the Atlantic Ocean and sends spirit-like energies of sand racing and dancing across the lunar-esque surface away from the sea. You can’t help but break into little dancing runs too.
Within days of following this routine I found my mind settling and my equilibrium returning. The pace of life at home helped greatly too, as did reconnecting with my family and old friends. Some of the latter unfortunately happened at the wake of Betty McManus. Her loss was felt deeply by the community of Drumshanbo of which she was an integral part, but most profoundly by her family of course.
It struck me that the Irish wake is in itself a form of air-hole through which we can breathe during even the most traumatic of circumstances. Loss can weigh so heavily upon us that it can feel like a rock sitting on our chest while filling our heads so completely it obscures our view of anything else. The communal ritual of the wake and funeral illuminates and helps us follow in a time of darkness a well-trodden pathway towards acceptance and understanding that we might otherwise miss.
How long that journey takes is a personal thing. On the outward journey it can feel like yours are the only footsteps to be seen and that no one has broken that sand or that sod before. But once you turn the corner you see that all the world has walked that way before, and their footsteps help guide you home, beautifully.